Actively Prevent Passive-Aggressive Behavior

By Signe Whitson Jun 7, 2010

The easiest way to recognize passive-aggressive employees is by their lack of assertiveness and directness with supervisors. They fail to ask questions about what is expected of them and may become anxious under pressure.

Tell-Tale Signs

Do any of your employees have these passive-aggressive characteristics?

  • Avoids responsibility for tasks.
  • Performs less when asked for more.
  • Misses deadlines.
  • Withholds information.
  • Leaves notes and uses e-mail to avoid face-to-face communication.
  • Arrives late to work and extends lunch breaks.
  • Uses sick days during major team projects.
  • Resists suggestions for change or improvement.
  • “Forgets” and “misplaces” important documents.
  • Embarrasses co-workers during meetings and presentations.
  • Justifies behavior with plausible explanations.
  • Consistently behaves this way.

Damaging Behavior

Passive aggression is a deliberate and masked way of expressing hidden anger. In the workplace, passive-aggressive behavior can manifest itself in one or more of the following ways:

Temporary compliance. The passive-aggressive employee often feels underappreciated and expresses his underlying anger through temporary compliance. Though he verbally agrees to perform a task, he delays completion by procrastinating, forgetting deadlines, misplacing documents or arriving late. For the passive-aggressive worker who feels under-acknowledged, temporary compliance is satisfying.

Intentional inefficiency. The passive-aggressive worker finds it more important to express covert hostility than to maintain an appearance of professional competence. She uses intentional inefficiency to complete work in a purposefully unacceptable way.

To protect against saboteurs, look out for employees whose work is consistently at or below minimum standards, who insist “no one told me,” and who personalize confrontations by authorities, playing up their roles as victims.

Letting a problem escalate. Teamwork and communication are key to productivity. When a passive-aggressive employee withholds information or deliberately fails to stop a glitch from turning into an irreversible gaffe, operations can halt. Misuse of sick days may help identify a passive-aggressive employee. Sabotage is the name of the game for the passive-aggressive employee who justifies her crimes of omission by saying, “I didn’t do anything.”

Hidden but conscious revenge. In contrast to the inaction that marks the previous tactic, some employees use covert actions to get revenge on supervisors. The passive-aggressive employee is aware that the person he is angry with has enough power to make his life miserable, so he decides it is not safe to confront him directly. Whether by spreading gossip that maligns the boss’s reputation or misplacing a document, the passive-aggressive employee finds justification in secret revenge.


By the nature of their covert acts, passive-aggressive employees are skilled at evading the long arm of workplace law. Unchecked, a compliant rule breaker can have a major effect on productivity and morale. When managers understand the signs and recognize patterns, they can protect themselves and other employees from being unwitting victims of this office crime.

The author is a licensed social worker and co-author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive-Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd edition (Pro-Ed, 2008). She can be reached at


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